World's Oldest Fledgling

The blog of Stephanie Wardrop, Y A Author

YA and the “F” Word

on June 5, 2013

No, not that one.  The other “F” word, the one that makes lots of people cringe even more than the four-letter one. FEMINIST.  Even young women who support equality begin a statement avowing such a belief by saying, “I’m not a feminist, but …” and then go one to say something really mild like “I think people should be paid the same for doing the same job” or “I think men should help raise children” or “I don’t think sexual assault is a good idea.”

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Georgia, my female main character in my Snark and Circumstance series of e-novellas is a feminist.  In fact, in book two of the series, Charm and Consequence, she announces herself as one.  And the main male character, Michael, is mostly with her declaration that she’s a “rabid feminist,” replying that “at least she’s not foaming at the mouth” when he asks her to dance.

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In a recent post on Jezebel.com, “How to Write a Feminist Young Adult Novel”, Rachel Shukert gives some pointers on creating the 21st century feminist YA heroine. First, Shukert argues, she need not be a reluctant heroine.  It’s okay to have your female protagonist and say “I volunteer” and not just to save her sister’s life like Katniss Everdeen does.  More YA heroines should just forge ahead being brave and awesome because that’s who they are and what they want to be.  No apologies or altruism necessary.  I like this idea a lot because I was raised in that conflicted era of  70s feminism when we were all “free to be you and me” but still had to be kind of shy about it.  Or at least not braggy.  Braggadocio is not feminine, and we were still concerned enough with that even as we were reveling in casting off our dresses and knee socks for  bell bottom jeans.

Which leads to another of Shukert’s points: “Femininity is not the enemy; misogyny is.” I’m as guilty as the next YA writer of creating a heroine who is, at best, a quirky dresser.  She thinks it’s her way of sticking it to the fashion industry -Screw you, Abercrombie! -but she may just be the product of an author over-identified with her heroine and unable to dress herself with any sense of style.   But Shukert makes a good point. One of the things I love about Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens is that of all the pageant participants who crash land on a deserted island, it’s not the snarky obviously feminist undercover high school journalist who saves them all.  Or, at least, she doesn’t do it alone.  Even the most fashion-loving, hairspray-shellacked, pink Sparkle Ponied girl rises to the occasion and helps to create a progressive utopia on that island, where the huts are “eco-friendly AND fashion-forward.”

Finally, I agree that YA heroines don’t need to see all females as either rivals or sisters.  We shouldn’t grow up seeing ourselves as fighting other females for scraps of (mostly male attention), though that is what most of popular culture teaches us, from YA series like The Clique and Pretty Little Liars to reality TV’s battling bachelorettes, housewives, and dance moms. At the same time, I don’t think it’s useful to teach girls that we’re all sisters under the skin and have each others’ backs.  Maybe I’m cynical but that hasn’t been my experience, though I do love watching the fragile solidarity the young dancers have built with one another against their demanding teacher and peculiarly simultaneously narcissistic and over-invested mothers on Dance Moms. We need to see patriarchy as the enemy, not each other, and not men as individuals.

And to that end, there are no better role models for young women than in YA literature, as I’ve discussed in previous posts*. There are more consistently smart, strong, and admirable young women portrayed on the pages of YA books than anywhere else in popular culture.  And that’s why I am so eager to check out Shukert’s new book. Plus, it’s based on Valley of the Dolls.  Talk about your bonus!

*If you want to check out these posts, I discuss readers identifying with YA heroines at Chapter by Chapter and the media’s portrayal of young women at Cornucopia of Reviews.

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